The Complete Poems of Anne Sexton (New York: Mariner, 1999)

Sunday was the birthday of Anne Sexton, one of several brilliant but troubled poet-suicides of the 1970s.  Sexton’s poetry ranges in mood and symbolism and touches on everything from mental illness and the death of children to prayer and the soul’s search for God.

The titles of her books reflect this thematic range:  To Bedlam and Part Way Back, Live or Die, The Book of Folly, The Death Notebooks, The Awful Rowing Toward God, 45 Mercy Street.

Anne Sexton
Here are two of my favorite Sexton poems, both of which deal with gratitude.  The imagery of the second poem is more difficult, but worth the wrestle:

The Last Unicorn (New York: Roc, 1968; reprint 2008)

Congrats to Amanda H. for winning a FREE copy of The Last Unicorn!

I’m a very picky reader of fantasy.  Fantasy has the potential to do everything fairy tales can do, but most fantasy fails dismally.

Peter Beagle’s Last Unicorn, however, is exactly what fantasy should be.  A compelling story set in a haunting world both strange and familiar.  Engaging characters with real flaws and dreams facing an impossible challenge.  And all told in beautiful prose that itself weaves a spell on the reader and awakens forgotten desires.

The Last Unicorn tells the story of (what else?) the last unicorn’s quest to discover the fate of all the other unicorns.  The unicorn is accompanied by Schmendrick—a magician whose ambition is far greater than his skill—and by Molly Grue, a peasant woman with hidden wells of wisdom and grief.

Their quest leads the three companions to face the terrifying power of the monstrous Red Bull and the world-weary King Haggard, whose greed has smothered his ability to feel joy—or compassion.  As their adventure builds to a climax, all three companions learn both the joy and sorrow that comes with love.  They all learn firsthand (even the unicorn) both the glory and the tragedy of being human.

‘Then what is magic for?’ Prince Lír demanded wildly.  ‘What use is wizardry if it cannot save a unicorn?’  He gripped the magician’s shoulder hard, to keep from falling.

Schmendrick did not turn his head.  With a touch of sad mockery in his voice, he said, ‘That’s what heroes are for.'”

The Last Unicorn is one of the finest pieces of fantasy I’ve read.  It would make great Fall reading, as the promises and longings of summer come to an end.

The Last Unicorn Giveaway

You can win a FREE copy of this novel by entering The Last Unicorn Giveaway.  Be sure to enter before the giveaway ends on September 30!

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A Canticle for Leibowitz (New York: EOS, 1959; reprint 2006)

Congrats to Pat V. for winning a FREE copy of A Canticle for Leibowitz!

Novels about the self-destruction of human civilization have been increasingly popular in our modern age:  1984, Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, Clockwork Orange, and more.  In these stories society collapses because of war, evil governments, Big Brother, or a zombie virus. Rarely, if ever, is the dark, twisted jungle of the human heart blamed for the demise of civilization.

Atomic Fallout and AOL Monks

But A Canticle for Leibowitz is different.  It begins after an atomic war (the Flame Deluge) has decimated human civilization, blasting human culture back into shamanism and clan warfare.  The Church survives the flood of fire in isolated pockets of monastic culture.  A new order of monks, the Albertian Order of Leibowitz (or AOL for short, a joke that wasn’t funny when this book was published in 1959), has dedicated itself to preserve the Memorabilia—any and all written texts from pre-fallout days.  Like the Irish monks after the fall of Rome, the Albertian monks save civilization one page at a time by copying and recopying ancient texts with quill pens and candlelight, while the world burns around them.

This novel follows the Order of Leibowitz through three distinct periods of history,  a post-apocalyptic retelling of western civilization.  The first section of the novel corresponds to the early medieval period.  It follows the adventures of Brother Francis of Utah as he struggles to discern his vocation as an ascetic desert monk and wrestles with the abbot over the possibility of miraculous appearances.

The second section of the novel corresponds to the Renaissance and Enlightenment.  The central conflict pits another AOL abbot against the agnostic scholar Thon Taddeo, a genius whose integrating mind has rediscovered modern science by piecing together the chaotic Memorabilia.  The third section of the novel corresponds to the modern age.  It introduces a third abbot who struggles to keep Christian ethics alive in an age of atomic and moral expediency.

Faith and a Long Memory

A Canticle for Leibowitz is an engaging read, and a fascinating reprisal of the chief conflicts of the soul that shaped western civilization.  Its central theme is that the ultimate cause of human suffering is the native corruption of the human heart.  And if this corruption can be overcome at all, it must be through faith in God’s goodness aided by knowledge and a very, very long memory.  This would be a fascinating book to read in conjunction with C.S. Lewis’s Abolition of Man, since both books arrive at the same truths by two different paths.

A Reading Guide for Leibowitz

For those interested in reading A Canticle for Leibowitz, I’ve made a reading guide to help you get the most out of this novel. Download a copy by clicking the button below:

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The Lost Domain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013)

Based loosely on autobiographical details, The Lost Domain tells the story of a young man who wanders into a remote chateau and joins a feast for a bride who never comes. The chateau awakens deep longings in the young man, especially when he falls in love with a beautiful and melancholy girl.

But the next day, the young man cannot remember the way to the chateau. He does not know the name of the estate or the name of the girl. And so, he sets out to relocate the Lost Domain that promised so much happiness—a search that devours him and those who care most about him.

The Lost Domain (originally titled Le Grand Meaulnes), is the only novel Alain-Fournier wrote in his short career, before being killed in World War I. Despite its minor faults, this novel is a masterful story that contrasts the real world with a dream world that promises to satisfy every human longing. Writing about this book, David Bentley Hart praises its ability to

evoke a sense of something always just at one’s back, which one cannot turn around quite quickly enough to glimpse—the sense of a lost country at whose border one can only drift, or of a lost memory whose tremulous edge one cannot quite grasp.

Alain-Fournier shows us that the true purpose of imaginary worlds is to ennoble and enlighten us, to awaken in us love for the right things. It shows us that a visit to Faerie Land teaches us to live better in our own world.

But it also shows us what happens when one refuses to return home. We learn the dangers of refusing to grow up and face the hard truths of a fallen world—and the hardness of our fallen and selfish hearts.

Discussion:  Have you read The Lost Domain?  What did you think?

God’s Big Picture (Downer's Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2002)

This is a short book that summarizes the entire storyline of the Bible. Roberts explains how the theme of God’s Kingdom (God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule and blessing) is a unifying theme that organizing all the history, story, and theology of Scripture into a coherent storyline.

This is an insightful little book, and everyone interested in understanding the Bible and/or western culture would do well to read it. It is the first book students at my school read every year from 7th-12th grade.

The Saga of the Volsungs (New York: Penguin, 2000)

This short book tells the violent story of Volsung and his descendants. An Icelandic saga finally written down around 1200 AD, this story includes a dragon, werewolves, dwarves, a ring of power, a one-eyed god, a magic sword pulled from a tree, shape-shifters, incest, betrayal, and murder.

This story also had a profound influence on J.R.R. Tolkien, who incorporated many elements from the Saga into his own stories of Middle Earth. Much of the somber, melancholic tone of Tolkien’s stories comes from his countless hours spent studying sagas like this one.

Genesis: A Commentary (Zondervan: Zondervan, 2001)

This book of beginnings (or genesis in Greek) is the foundation of the entire Bible. Biblical literacy is impossible without intimate knowledge of Genesis. In the first eleven chapters alone, it details the creation of the world, man’s purpose and calling, the entry of evil into the world and its consequences, the reconstitution of God’s people, raging wickedness and divine judgment, a new creation, a rebellious tower, and the confusion of languages. And all that happens before Abraham and his family enter the action.

What’s more, no westerner can be considered culturally literate without a thorough knowledge of this book. Its stories, theology, and wisdom have fired the souls and imaginations of generations of people in the western tradition. Literature, history, theology are nearly impossible to do well without being thoroughly versed in the book of Genesis.

The City of God (New York: New City Press, 2012)

Augustine’s magnum opus, this book gives his answer to why Rome fell to the Goths, despite having become a Christian city. The first half contains several brilliant reductio ad absurdum arguments as Augustine challenges the feasibility of the Roman pantheon. The second half of the book gives a theological history of the City of God and City of Man. These pages contain some of Augustine’s finest, most important writing: an explanation of the origin and nature of evil, the doctrine of ordo amoris, and his famous exposition of how the City of God and City of Man overlap.

Augustine’s theory of ordo amoris is essential for understanding his writing, as well as many of the great texts of the Middle Ages. Arguing from the biblical concept of the heart as the center of human identity, Augustine asserts that our loves are the fundamental driving force of our wills, thoughts, and actions. Good loves lead to goodness; evil loves lead to evil. This means that an individual is the sum total of his loves. All his virtue results from properly ordered loves; all his vice comes from aberrant loves.

The goal of human life, then, is to attain a proper order of love—a true ordo amoris. This can only be done, Augustine argues, through the grace of God in the individual. Since love is the core of our identity, and our loves are misshapen, God must initiate the change toward proper love. This means loving each thing with the right kind of love in the right degree—something that can only be attain through wisdom, grace, and the discipline of following Christ.

Note:  Be sure to order both volumes of this translation.